(San tiao ren/Away with Words, Japan/HK/SG - 1999)

by Vanes Naldi

Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Georgina Hobson, Christa Hughes, Kevin Sherlock, Mavis Xu
Genre: Comedy
Director: Chris Doyle
Screenplay: Chris Doyle, Tony Rayns
Cinematography: Chris Doyle
Composer: Fumio Itabashi
Runtime: 146 minutes

"It is not about technique, it is about communication; it is about creating that ambience."

"I am extremely interested in the dynamics of space. Don't talk to me about content. Of course I can understand the structure of a story, but I am much more interested in atmosphere and dynamics. That is why I should never direct. I should leave that to people who want to tell a story logically. I'm not very logical."
Chris Doyle, interview with Tony Rayns.

In an era when Chinese cinema is disintegrating because audiences are going toward the Hollywood product instead of supporting the local one (like in pretty much every other country) and that most of the acclaimed directors and actors go to Hollywood for greener pastures (John Woo, Chow Yun Fat), it's refreshing to see some people who still like to "stay home" and work independently without the constraints and limits of Hollywood. It's a great thing to see people who don't give in to the big mainstream filmmaking industry. Most of the Chinese films are becoming something "mainstream" (in a worldwide sense) though because even the Chinese audience is being alienated to their countries' movies by the Hollywood bullshit. The directors who cater to the Hollywood flick friendly audience won't have too much money to waste because, like everyone else, China is moving to majors and shit like that instead of national funding. The "big dogs" like Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan, & Chen Kaige have always catered to a specific audience, worked a certain kind of product, and got their money from people who were interested in what they did. Thus, no matter how the situation ends, they'll always be able to fund their films.

One of the people who will benefit the most from their independence is Australia native Chris Doyle. Doyle is a cult icon in Hong Kong who is one of the few "westerners" that became someone in their cinema, a world where it's not easy to be successful, especially for someone coming from the Western World. He will certainly continue his relationship with these directors, who he's worked with for years. The most obvious relationship people associate Doyle with is Wong Kar-Wai: if you think about it, most of the greatest filmmakers develop a professional bond and friendship with particular key crew members like cinematographer, composer, or editor. Take for example the Alfred Hitchcock-Bernard Herrmann collaboration. Can you think of Psycho without Herrmann's beautiful score? The other obvious composer one is Steven Spielberg-John Williams. I'm not a huge fan of Spielberg, but nobody can deny what Williams has done to Spielberg's films musically, and what those films have done for him, giving him fame even among the average music fans. There are others, not as known, like Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone (the same could be said for Tonino Delli Colli, who filmed many Leone works), Fellini & Nino Rota, Godfrey Reggio & Philip Glass, Martin Scorsese & Thelma Schoonmaker, and so on. Working with someone you know is reliable is the best possible thing because you trust him (or her) enough to do what needs to be done. Thanks to Kwan, Kaige and especially Wong Kar-Wai, Chris Doyle was able to develop faith among the people who later would grant him the possibility to finally realize his first ever motion picture, Away With Words.

Doyle, born in Sidney, Australia, worked many different jobs before finally finding Eldorado, photography. He studied at the University of Hong Kong, and thanks to lucky coincidences, fortunate acquaintances, and friendships (like many times is necessary to become successful in this business) he got the opportunity to become one of the most influential cinematographers of the modern era. He founded the Lanling Theatre Workshop in 1978, Taiwan's first modern theatre group. He worked for Cloud Gate Dance Ensemble, one of the most respected modern Dance groups, and realized the successful Taiwan TV series "Travelling Images".

Thanks to the friendships he established he started filming for Edward Yang in 1981, and from there the story of his cinematic career began. At first he wasn't very good at all (as he explained in the documentary dedicated to his career "Orientations: Chris Doyle"), he didn't understand the difference between what his eyes perceived and what a camera could film. He later learned to use the camera in a different way than the usual cinematographer. His technique is hard to top, but the things that totally set him apart from his colleagues are his use of color, different types and styles of shooting, and the way he films the action. His action scenes are sometimes shot from the perspective of an angel supervising the events, while in other instances he takes the actor's POV, walking, thinking, and communicating with them. For these and many other reasons, Doyle's style is what really made Kar-Wai's films. He's so creative. He puts a different perspective on things and totally reverses age old techniques of filming. He applies sources of light where he wants, using abstract objects effectively and making them seem real.

In Hong Kong, Doyle's name needs no introduction (he's not a huge star, but many, many people know his face and his work, even if they haven't necessarily seen his movies), but few people in the Western word know him. People like Gus Van Sant believed using him to film his shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's "Psycho" would be an interesting idea, but it totally failed. The reason lies between the fact you can't recreate art by copying another artist's work (ironically, during the documentary about his career, Doyle responded to a fan who started asking questions "No, don't ever be a fan, never, never copy, do your own shit."), and that you can't limit Doyle's vision and style with such a strict premise. The film was technically good and the performances were adequate, but there was always a feeling of deja vu, a "been there, done that only a "tad" better (Mike notes it was far more than a tad, especially comparing the great Anthony Perkins to the pitiful Vince Vaughn, and Dan chimes in that this abomination should never have been made). Doyle's style can't be imprisoned by such rules, and one of the reasons most of the films he participated in where successful was the fact the directors trusted Doyle. Wong Kar-Wai only had a bare-bones script for most of his works, but let the actors and in particular Doyle improvise, gave their artistic verve a chance to express itself. Films like "Fallen Angels" are an example of Doyle showing his vision, communicating his message through images. In an interview, Chris said he isn't interested in narrative, what he really cares about are the people, their character, the images, the places, the sound, and what those things communicate to him. Away with Words, his first feature film as a director, is a perfect example of his creed, of his vision.

What little of the plot we can understand, or at least we're given, revolves around three characters whose life becomes interconnected. The first is Asano (Tadanobu Asano), who since his childhood has displayed a tremendous memory to the point he not only remembers words, but also can't take them out of his mind. They populate his head so much that he now lives in these words. His life has become a constant escape from the words people tell him. He's just trying to find something to cling to, something that makes him feel safe. He finds comfort in the image of the sea. It reminds him of what he used to do when he was a kid, and of a sofa in the place they live that smells of peacock feathers. He talks to himself, rarely having contact with other people when it's not necessary. He says "I only need my imagination for the things I want to do and the places I want to go."

We also meet Kevin, a constantly drunk gay Englishman who can't even remember the name of the street where he lives (in Cantonese), so he ends up being arrested EVERY night by the police. He keeps rambling about things that don't make sense, although seemingly they do to him. Susie, Kevin's girlfriend, is a young girl living her life day by day, not caring about the past or the future. She's always bored and depressed, clinging to life just out of continuity.

The plot begins there and ends there. There isn't much advancement, or at least the only explanations we get of the characters are done through flashbacks (especially for Asano). The rest is all about their thoughts, their images, and what they're thinking about. At times it can be quite difficult to discern what is going on because Doyle certainly doesn't follow a conventional path. Like a painter, he focuses on one part of his project, but all of a sudden he might move to some other "area" without necessarily ruining the end result.

What you need to do to enjoy Away With Words is realize Doyle is not telling a story; he's making a statement, painting a visual picture. If you try to make some sense out of the story, you won't find out much beyond the character descriptions I wrote. If you try to reduce moviemaking down to mere plot, linear storytelling with simple characters and the usual three-act development, I assure you'll hate this film more than anything else you've seen. Like Godard, Doyle doesn't care about what the audience thinks, that the film is not conventional and easy for them to understand. It's just a personal statement on filmmaking. If you watch Godard's Weekend and try to make sense out of everything in a conventional filmmaking way, you'll be highly disappointed. The experience is seeing the images and sounds, the style. It's like watching a painter work on his masterpiece. It's like a Jazz ensemble deciding a common note, and from there creating music, improvising, going with the flow, expressing their feelings with music. In this case, Doyle takes the main characters and from there he develops his vision, portrays their lives the way he wants. He doesn't make the film to please the audience; he makes his statement and shows his mind.

The most compelling thing, as always with Doyle, is the way it's filmed. While other works might give him a great deal of spontaneity in his cinematography, there are always minor restrictions such as the director's ideas, the plot, and the characters. Here, Doyle's mind is free to go beyond. There are incredibly beautiful scenes, weird ones, scenes that don't make sense visually and others that might overwhelm you. The sum of the parts is an amazing cinematic experience, not because of the story, but because of the images, the sounds, and the feeling you get. It's like being drunk for 2 hours, and ironically the motto of this film is "Beer is Life." It is a hypnotic trip that takes your mind out of conventional filmmaking for and into the world of Doyle's images, sounds, and feelings. It's something I can't really describe.

Technically the film is incredible. The soundtrack is really interesting, but there's something else, a charm, some mental feeling that catches you from the beginning and never leaves you until the end. Not many people will be able to enjoy this "film" because it's totally different from anything I've seen, but if you try to loosen up your idea of "regular," you'll find this film is incredibly enjoyable.

Unlike Godard, Doyle doesn't take himself that seriously or at least gives a lighthearted feeling to most of the film. The ending is one of the weirdest, funniest thing I've ever seen, with an 80-year-old woman RAPPING to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's The Message while the rest of the actors dance all over the place.  After all, watching the documentary about his career, the biggest feeling I got is that Chris Doyle is an artist, and like every artist, he's extroverted, funny, weird, and peculiar. I consider this art, and like every sort of art, you've got to make your own view of what it means. To me, it's a great statement about Doyle's style and vision; to you, it might be just a pile of shit.  

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